There are worse places to find inspiration than the French Quarter in New Orleans.
One day in 1977, Janice Durand was sitting in the famous Café du Monde, sipping strong coffee with hot milk and watching her husband and two sons dive into the sugary beignets.
Afterward, walking near some retail shops, one of the boys called with delight, “There’s a toy store!”
It changed their lives.
Not right away, of course. But as Durand recounts in her new memoir, “The Magic Hour: A Very Personal History of State Street,” what she saw in the French Quarter store — imported toys, colorful and well-crafted — made an impact.
“I thought, ‘Wow,’” she told me recently. “‘I could see this on State Street.’”
Durand followed through on that vision. The Puzzlebox opened at 230 State Street in 1979. Ultimately, she would have four stores in three cities, and in 1987 Playthings magazine crowned the shop the nation’s best-designed toy store. Durand rode in a limo to the celebratory banquet in Manhattan.
But that was the year the stock market crashed. Durand soon faced a reckoning, and the power of the new book comes from her willingness to write honestly about both the highs and lows of her professional and personal life. She and I will discuss “The Magic Hour” at 6 p.m. on June 8 at Mystery to Me bookstore.
Originally from Chippewa Falls, Durand and her husband, John Durand — also a Wisconsin native — landed in Madison in 1970, and a few years later coauthored a guidebook titled “Getting the Most Out of Madison” that sold out its first printing.
Still, it wasn’t until the late ’70s, when Durand was working as the coordinator of the new State Street Mall and Capitol Concourse, that the central city really grabbed hold — and wouldn’t let go.
“I fell irrevocably in love with downtown,” she writes in the new book. “Especially State Street. I never tired of walking the street, full of a remarkable range of people: students and their parents, state legislators in suits, tourists in shorts, mothers with toddlers, teenagers hanging out, fans in Badger shirts, state workers in pressed pants and shirt sleeves, remnant hippies wearing ragged jeans and sandals.”
Durand liked the mall coordinator job — “It was like a master’s in retail,” she said of meeting people like Chuck Bauer, co-founder of The Soap Opera — but grew weary of the position’s lack of resources. She was ready when Fanny Garver told her about a business looking to sell in the 200 block of State Street, across from the soon-to-open Civic Center.
Well, she was ready — and she wasn’t. Durand was a month from opening her New Orleans-inspired children’s toy store when another State Street retailer, Shelley Rosenbaum, bluntly pointed out there weren’t any kids in the area, no families living downtown. “Who will be your customers?” she asked.
With weeks till opening, Durand heard about a juried craft show in upstate New York. After flying to New York City, she drank too much wine and missed her train to the show. She made it just in time, and ordered the adult retail items that would become a mainstay at The Puzzlebox.
“Sometimes,” Durand said, “the most creative solutions come when your back is against the wall. This won’t work. What will work?”
On opening day, improbably, Durand spotted a celebrity — Leo Famolare, whose namesake shoes were all the rage — enter The Puzzlebox with an entourage of three young women. He was in town for a meet and greet at Yost’s.
“I was actually wearing a pair of his shoes,” Durand said. “They bought all the good stuff. I thought, ‘Whoa, maybe this is going to work.’” Her opening day sales projection was $400. She did $700.
There would be more good days — many more — and, as noted, tough days, too. Expanding into other markets went well until it didn’t. On a personal level, Durand writes about marriages ending and, after a long struggle, finding sobriety.
Durand said she’s always enjoyed writing and started taking writing classes after retirement “for something to do.” As her memoir took shape, she credits Michelle Wildgen at the Madison Writers Studio with “seeing me through a couple of versions of this book.” Wildgen’s colleague, Susanna Daniel, helped as well.
And the title, “The Magic Hour”? It’s how Durand sees those early Puzzlebox years, an enchanting time on State Street.
“It was the post-Vietnam era when a lot of people who wouldn’t ordinarily have gone into retail, did,” Durand said. “They didn’t want to work for a corporation. Go out on your own and be creative.”
She continued: “What a rich mix it was, of customers and stores. Uniting people of all classes and minds. The best way for State Street to be. It was at its height then.”
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